Try Red Pepper in print with our pay-as-you-feel subscription. You decide the price, from as low as £2 a month.

More info ×

Showdown time in Venezuela

Hugo Chávez faces a test of his own devising as Venezuelans are given the opportunity to endorse or end his presidency.

August 1, 2004
4 min read


Pablo NavarretePablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)


  share     tweet  

The political crisis in Venezuela seems to be heading for a crucial showdown after the country’s National Electoral Council (CNE) announced that the opposition had collected enough signatures to force a recall referendum on the rule of president Hugo Chávez.

The CNE set the date for the referendum as 15 August. The council’s vice-president, Ezequiel Zamora, who is accused by many of sympathising with the opposition, said that elections would follow in 30 days if Chávez lost. Were the referendum to take place after 19 August, and if Chávez did lose, Venezuelan vice-president José Vincente Rangel would take over without holding new elections.

Chávez addressed the nation, accepting the CNE’s preliminary results and congratulating the opposition for finding a democratic and constitutional way to try to oust him. His opponents, who accuse him of everything from insanity to being a Castro-style communist dictator, have already attempted to remove him from power by means of an unsuccessful coup in April 2002 and a two-month general strike in December 2002.

The Venezuelan constitution, passed into law by referendum in December 1999, emphasises participation at all levels and incorporates a series of articles that enable ordinary citizens to have a direct influence over public affairs. Crucially, article 72 states that “all elected posts”, from the president down, can be subjected to a recall referendum after officials reach the midway point of their term in office. This point was reached by Chávez on 19 August 2003.

It is ironic that the opposition has turned to Chávez’s new constitution in its latest strategy to bring down his government, given that in the past it has labelled the framework undemocratic. Meanwhile, international observers from the Organization of American States and the human rights organisation the Carter Center congratulated Venezuelans for exercising their democratic rights. The run-up to the referendum promises to be a real test for the opposition’s democratic credentials.

The process of gathering the required signatures to trigger this referendum has been an explosive saga in itself, lasting almost a year. When 3.4 million signatures were handed in by the opposition in November 2003, the government contested the veracity of a large proportion of them, complaining that many had been obtained through fraud such as the inclusion of deceased people.

At the time Chávez called the whole process a “mega fraude”. The CNE validated only 1.9 million signatures, and required the owners of those disputed to confirm their support for the referendum. In the end, according to the latest results released by the CNE, the opposition was able to validate only 2,451,821 signatures – about a million less than it had originally submitted.

For the opposition to win the referendum it must achieve more votes against Chávez than those obtained by him when he was elected president in December 1998. Then, Chávez swept the traditional parties out of office with 3,750,000 votes – 56 per cent of the total.

Thus, in the referendum this August, the opposition will need to obtain more than a million extra votes to defeat Chávez through the ballot box. This appears unlikely, given the popularity of Chávez among the poor, who make up more than 80 per cent of the Venezuelan population.

Among the many charges directed at Chávez by his opponents, both domestic and international, is that his government is undemocratic. It is hard, however, to imagine Tony Blair or George Bush agreeing to a similar referendum half way through their time in office – a time when governments are usually at their least popular.

US hypocrisy in this respect is brought into sharp focus by the recent revelation that the National Endowment for Democracy (funded by the US Congress) provided close to $1m to fund opposition groups in the months before Venezuela’s failed coup of April 2002. The US’s contempt for democracy in the region is nothing new for Latin Americans, as Chileans, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, Haitians, Grenadians and Brazilians can readily testify.

Even if Chávez were to win the referendum, it would be wrong to assume that the opposition will accept the result and allow him to conclude his term in office. Past experience in Latin America, as with Allende’s Chile in 1973, suggests that right-wing elites will use legal or illegal means to overthrow a government that threatens their privileges.

Domestically, a high level of responsibility will have to be shown by both sides to prevent an incendiary political situation from turning into full-scale civil war in Venezuela. Foreign intervention in the internal affairs of the country should be actively opposed by people throughout the world in order to prevent it joining the long list of Latin American governments deposed through US-sponsored military action.

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

Pablo NavarretePablo Navarrete is a British-Chilean journalist and documentary filmmaker. He is the founder of www.alborada.net and a correspondent for the Latin America Bureau (LAB)


Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite

Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead

Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee

Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power

The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced

India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya

North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero

The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava

France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati

This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help

PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank

Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media

I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to

We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS

Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank

Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland

Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones

The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya

The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.

An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now

The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee

Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell

Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths

Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe

How empire struck back
Walden Bello dissects the failure of Barack Obama's 'technocratic Keynesianism' and explains why this led to Donald Trump winning the US presidency